Released: 30th June
Seen: 17th July
In 2005 Joe Hill, son of Stephen King released a series of short stories in a book titled 20th Century Ghosts. One of the stories contained in that book was a little something called The Black Phone, a ghost story involving a basement, a boy and a phone (the plot will be detailed a later paragraph, we’ve got a formula around here and we’re sticking to it) and it had quite the impact, being the first collection of stories Joe Hill released which proved that he inherited his father’s ability to terrify.
At some point his work terrified director Scott Derickson because instead of doing the last Doctor Strange movie (creative differences happened), Scott spent his time during the pandemic working on bringing the nightmare of The Black Phone to life, and after viewing it I have even fewer reasons to answer a ringing phone than my normal apathy towards talking to people.
The Black Phone takes place in the good old days of 1978 when kids played in the streets in between occasional bouts of beating the living shit out of each other. In a little suburb in Denver, a young boy named Finney (Mason Thames) is just trying to deal with his problems, a bunch of violent bullies, an abusive alcoholic father called Terrence (Jeremy Davies) and a sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) who keeps having strange dreams about the kids who have gone missing around town. Oh, right, almost forgot to mention that in this quiet little town there’s a man known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) who drives around town, kidnaps kids by telling them he’s a magician who can show them a magic trick and leaves only a bunch of black balloons.
Unfortunately, Finney is the Grabber’s victim, getting kidnapped and waking up in a small concrete room with a single mattress, a toilet and a black rotary phone attached to the wall with the phone cord cut… which makes it more than a little strange when the phone begins ringing. Things get even stranger when the voices on the other end of the line are the previously kidnapped kids who just might be able to help Finney get away from The Grabber… if The Grabber doesn’t snap and kill Finney first.
The Black Phone is one of those films that’s more about tension than straight-up visceral shocks and, as expected for a film by the director of Sinister, it’s incredible at building that slow tension. Everything from the strange, sometimes ethereal dream sequences to the unnerving way each of the kidnappings is shown all create a sense of unease that turns into pure unrelenting dread once Finney wakes up in the concrete prison where he’ll spend most of the film. Once the film moves to that weird little basement it starts reveling in messing with the audience, throwing out truly upsetting jump scares while letting the reality of the situation sink in for everyone.
Using the classic imagery from stranger danger ads, The Black Phone really creates a feeling of familiarity like this could be happening in any town anywhere. When the film is outside the basement there’s a sense of reality, the kids are a lot like the ones who everyone grew up with. Some are quiet, some are cool, some would gleefully beat you to death just for fun because kids are terrifying. It also really helps set up Finney as this quiet meek kid who hides from the bullies and doesn’t fight back which makes him a fairly easy victim for The Grabber… and once The Grabber is in the film, that’s when The Black Phone kicks into high gear.
Ethan Hawke’s performance as The Grabber is the glue that keeps this strange little film together, he dances between viscerally horrifying and quietly unnerving with expert ease. He spends almost the entire runtime of The Black Phone with his face obscured by a strange mask (or face paint but normally it’s the mask on the poster) that can split in half, hiding either his eyes or his mouth and you quickly get a sense of what each one means in terms of what might happen. It’s a truly demented and brilliant performance, the kind that might not have that much actual screentime but creates a feeling that carries through the lengthy sequences without him on screen.
It’s those long sequences between Grabber moments where The Black Phone has a mild pacing problem, it spends a long long LONG time just watching Finney trying to figure out how to escape and failing repeatedly. It can take a while for things to get going and you might feel like it’s stalling for time. Granted when things pick up again it’s worth it, your wait is rewarded with some terrifying moments courtesy of our masked magician but there are a few moments when the pacing works against the film.
Even with that mild nitpick, The Black Phone is a truly terrifying film that will have you thinking twice about answering the phone. With one of the most unnerving villains in modern horror cinema and a bunch of genuinely fantastic child actors carrying the emotional weight of this strange tale. It’s a welcome return to the horror genre for Scott Derickson who once again proves to be amazing with setting a tone that can make the audience’s toes curl.